“SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER” AT WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
“Suddenly Last Summer,” is like witnessing the re-telling of a nightmare. The 90-minute piece, enacted without intermission, can be considered an epic poem that contains very dark, symbolic images regarding the clash of untamed nature, society and religion. Here, we are taken through a tangled jungle that metaphorically depicts the tragic consequences of unacceptable, human behavior - subject matter that evidently tormented the conflicted mind of Tennessee Williams. The playwright evidently had to work through his own demons in dealing with an overpowering mother, a mentally ill sister who died, plus his guilt-ridden homosexuality. These personal themes appear in many of Williams’ plays, “The Glass Menagerie,” in particular.
Initially, we hear increasing torrents of rain - reminding us of the recent hurricane that forced the Playhouse to close on Opening Night. The sound design and original music by Fitz Patton provided this foreboding atmosphere. The scene opens on a sweltering, glass-enclosed living area of a wealthy home in the New Orleans Garden District. The first thing we notice is a gigantic, Venus Fly-Trap-plant that lures insects and devours them alive. Oddly, some people find this plant attractive and Mrs. Venable (Annalee Jefferies), an aging, wealthy, Southern Belle is apparently one of them. The woman suffered a stroke a year ago and so she hobbles around and sits in a wheelchair most of the time. Like her morbid plant, she is being eaten up alive by the memory of her beloved son, Sebastian, who died - “suddenly last summer.”
The over protective mother explains to her visitor, Dr. Cukrowicz that she could not accompany her son, Sebastian (a sensitive poet seeking inspiration) on his last European jaunt. It turns out that the “inspiration” her son sought, was the company other young men that traveled in the same circle as his celebrity mother. Mrs. Venable made these social arrangements for her son while feigning denial of what they could lead to.
Because of her illness, the mother appointed a young cousin, “Catherine” (Liv Rooth) to take her place instead. According to Mrs. Venable, Catherine was telling such “false,” and horrible stories about her son’s unusual demise during this trip, that she had her sent to a mental hospital. The mother wants this woman to be “shut up” permanently and offers the doctor a bribe to perform a lobotomy on Catherine.
Flocks of vicious birds, a burning bone that lights up the sky, and the name of a Spanish resort where her son was staying, called “Cabeza de Lobo,” are among the images referred to during Jefferies vivid presentation.
“Cabeza de Lobo” means “wolf’s head” in Spanish. Interestingly, a Spanish town exists by that name but it’s not a seacoast resort. While vacationing in Mexico, Williams wrote a letter to a friend in which he indicated that he was inspired by a nightmarish painting entitled “Cabeza de Lobo” and that he was currently writing a piece about a “Werewolf.”
And so, this horrible, half-human creature, most likely representative of a hellish place (perhaps lurking in the secret corners of one’s mind) is rolled off Ms. Jefferies wet tongue several times during her speech. In effect, she practically licks her chops while planning her evil deed - Catherine’s lobotomy.
Liv Rooth as “Catherine,” the lovely, youthful co-star of the play, takes center stage when she’s brought in to be examined by the doctor. Catherine is given a truth serum and goes on to describe what suddenly happened during that evil summer. Clutching her stomach and contorting her body, we feel Catherine’s anguish at being used as a decoy to satisfy Sebastian’s homosexual desires. His horrible death is also eating out her insides. Adding to the devouring atmosphere are two, hungry vultures...Catherine’s opportunistic mother (Charlotte Maier) and her greedy brother George (Ryan Garbayo). The pair leave hungry when their money-seeking mission falls apart.
Annalee Jefferies and Liv Rooth give outstanding performances and a wonderful cast under the direction of David Kennedy, enhance this unusual, thought-provoking play.
Plays through Sept. 10 Tickets: 203-227-4177